A senior U.S. official said Thursday that in order to defeat ISIS, the ultra-violent Islamic extremist movement that has taken over parts of Iraq and Syria, the international community must cut off the group’s funding. That means adopting a global policy of not paying the terror group ransom for the hostages it takes.
“Very simply, if we are to protect our citizens and avoid bankrolling our adversary, every country must adopt and implement a no-ransoms policy,” said David S. Cohen, Treasury Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence, in remarks delivered in Washington at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
“We maintain this policy not because we are cold-hearted,” Cohen said. “To the contrary, at the president’s direction, we use all of our military, intelligence, law enforcement, and diplomatic capabilities to secure the release of American hostages. The attempt made this summer by U.S. forces to rescue hostages being held by ISIL reflects this commitment,” he added, using an alternate name for the group.
Both the U.S. and the U.K. have long had a policy of refusing to ransom hostages. In September, an ISIS member brutally beheaded two American journalists and the videos were sent out to the world via social media. A British journalist was similarly murdered. After the murder of journalist James Foley, one of the Americans, his family revealed that the Obama administration had actively dissuaded them from negotiating ransom payments.
In the spring, however, French and Spanish journalists kidnapped by ISIS were allowed to return home. While they wouldn’t admit it, both countries are widely believed to have paid sizeable ransoms for the journalists’ return. Earlier this week, two Germans taken hostage by a radical Islamist group in the Philippines were freed, reportedly after the payment of several million Euros.
Last month, British Prime Minister David Cameron took to the floor in Parliament to criticize Germany, France, and Spain for failing to abide by a two-year-old statement of principles signed by the G-8 countries that condemned paying hostage takers.
David Cohen said that so far this year, ISIS has taken in at least $20 million in ransom payments – something that will only create incentives for more kidnappings, he said. He maintained there’s an “emerging international consensus” against ransom payments that the U.S. is trying to solidify.
“It has been U.S. policy for many years to refuse the payment of ransoms or make other concessions to hostage-takers,” he said. “This policy rests on the sound premise – confirmed by experience – that an explicit and consistently applied no-concessions policy reduces the frequency of kidnappings by eliminating the underlying incentive to take hostages in the first place.”
Paying ransom to terrorist organizations, he said, is even worse than paying simple criminal kidnappers, because the money will be used to fund new terror attacks. “Refusing to pay ransoms to terrorists, therefore, not only makes it less likely that Americans will be taken hostage, it also deprives terrorists of funding critical to their deadly aspirations and operations,” he said.
Cohen’s remarks were delivered in the context of a broader talk about attacking the terror group’s source of funds.
ISIS currently earns millions of dollars a month selling oil from captured oilfields on the black market. Cohen said that the U.S. is working with international partners to track down the middlemen ISIS uses to get the oil to buyers.
“[A]nyone else that handles ISIL’s oil should know that we are hard at work identifying them, and that we have tools at hand to stop them,” Cohen said. “We not only can cut them off from the U.S. financial system and freeze their assets, but we can also make it very difficult for them to find a bank anywhere that will touch their money or process their transactions. In combating ISIL’s fundraising through oil sales, we will leverage the well-established reluctance of banks around the world to facilitate the financing of terrorism.”
Cohen said that the U.S. is also taking steps to isolate donors that give money to ISIS as well as senior ISIS leaders from the global financial system.
The group’s determination to seize and hold territory, he said, means it has to govern that territory. Yet cutting off access to the global financial system, he promised, will quickly become very difficult.
“We are already seeing reports of water and electricity shortages in Mosul as ISIL fails to deliver,” he said. “As we make progress in diminishing ISIL’s revenues and its freedom to use them, we will further exploit this vulnerability.”
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